What happens when you arrive too fast at a corner in the wet with well-worn premium tyres on the front and brand new budget Asian tyres on the back?
Until recently I’d have expected the answer to that question to be gentle understeer, with the front of the car sliding wide as the worn front tyres lost grip and the new rears clung on. Lifting off should then restore grip, so problem solved. But then we visited the Contidrom, where Continental Tyres puts its products to the test.
We were there because Continental, along with other big-name manufacturers like Michelin and Goodyear, has a problem. Increasingly, once a car is a few years old, cash-strapped motorists are opting for cheap replacement tyres.
Why splash out on big name brands at, say, £85 each when you can get ‘Goodlop’ or ‘Firelli’ at £50 each? OK, you might not win any races on them, but surely they’re perfectly adequate for everyday use?
Once cars reach a certain age the MoT test is often the trigger for tyre purchase, where the focus is on getting a pass at the least cost. Usually the tyres at only one end of the car will need replacing, so the combination of worn original tyres at the front and new cheapos at the back (these days the general advice is to have the newest tyres on the back) is quite likely, and one that will keep the MoT man perfectly happy.
One tyre looks much like another and surely the main thing is to have a decent tread depth? That attitude means companies like Continental are losing out. They make only premium tyres with prices that reflect high quality materials and the millions pumped into R&D.
On the Contidrom’s wet steering circle we soon discovered that even in a new MINI diesel with electronic stability control, sudden, massive oversteer was the result of trying too hard, as those budget tyres lost all grip at the back. It really felt as if the rears were riding on ice and the fronts on tarmac. Only a rapid lunge of opposite-lock could prevent a spin.
Out in the real world most drivers would be too overcome by shock and surprise to do anything to save the situation. A journalist on the event told us that was exactly what had happened to him years ago on one of his first new cars press trips to Germany, when he was caught out by a wet and rapidly-tightening exit slip road from the autobahn.
He ended up in a very second-hand Jetta perched upside down on the armco. The same tyre imbalance is what sees cars spinning on wet motorways when a sudden swerve leads to loss of control, so this isn’t just a problem for boy racers.
Driving BMW 1 Series’ on the wet handling circuit, first with Contis all round, then budget tyres on the back proved the same point. Then – most fun of all – we tried a series of quick cars like the Audi RS3, Porsche Panamera and Mercedes-Benz A-Class AMG around the ‘dry’ handling circuit (actually thoroughly wet thanks to steady rain), keeping up with a very press-on test driver.
Thankfully that was done on new Continentals all round, demonstrating astonishing levels of wet grip and controllability. It wasn’t the grip of the Continentals that surprised me so much as the woeful lack of it from the Asian budget tyres.
So had Continental scoured the world for the lowest grip tyres they could find just to make their own rubber look good, we asked UK managing director David Smith. “No, these were tyres we found on sale locally. The budget tyres we used are typical of an E rated tyre for straight line wet grip. What you have experienced here is that lateral wet grip is not covered by the label, but can also be an issue with budget tyres.”
The EU tests have made comparing tyres a lot easier, particularly on websites like www.blackcircles.com and www.mytyres.co.uk where you can check the ratings for all the tyres available for your car. But only three aspects are tested – economy (rolling resistance), wet braking and external noise – and independent auditing of the company-conducted tests isn’t established yet.
Even if you take the EU ratings at face value, there are many more aspects to tyre performance, like dry cornering and braking, tyre life, ride comfort, internal noise, puncture resistance, winter performance, resistance to white-lining and so on. And given that premium tyres tend to last longer and use less fuel, they could end up costing less anyway.
Continental made their point well. In the tyre world, you tend to get what you pay for and skimping on tyres at the expense of safety could be a very false economy indeed. Fair advice, and yet these are hard times and not everyone will be entirely convinced by the argument.
I’ve just had to buy a couple of tyres for a 23-year-old Toyota Corolla that I have as a back-up. I don’t use it much and it probably isn’t long for this world, so did I splash out on new Continentals or Michelins? No, I researched cheaper alternatives and found some Avons on mytyres.co.uk that were rated as highly on the EU tests and were astonishingly cheap at £32.40 for 175/70R13s.
Sadly, when they arrived, I discovered that these days they’re made not at Avon’s Wiltshire factory but in China. Even so, they seem fine – quiet, smooth-riding and well behaved on wet roundabouts.
So perhaps the message is: if possible, stick with a top brand for the best combination of safety, performance economy and life. But if you have to go down the budget route, or won’t be keeping the car long, don’t just accept the cheapest tyre the fitting centre offers you.
Even amongst the budget brands there are huge differences in performance, so do your homework beforehand and find cheaper tyres that – in your size – get reasonable grades in the EU wet braking and economy tests. At least that way you shouldn’t find yourself facing the wrong way on a motorway staring at an oncoming truck.